25 Years of Women's Gymnastics

By NU Athletic Communications
Photo by University Communications

Over the past 25 years, the Nebraska women's gymnastics team has established a tradition that few college programs can match.

A .756 winning percentage, 15 conference championships and 12 NCAA appearances only explain part of the reason for the success of the Husker women's gymnastics program. In this Silver Anniversary season, we look back at the accomplishments of a program that has recorded 25 straight winning seasons.

From Modest Beginnings
Although the first season of intercollegiate competition took place in 1976, the first Big Eight Championships took place one year earlier in Lawrence, Kan. The Huskers entered a team and placed fourth out of five teams, almost 30 points behind Iowa State.

After the 1975 season, Karen Balke was named the first head coach of the Nebraska women's gymnastics team. Her first roster consisted of 10 women - all of whom were from in-state. In the 1976 season - Balke's only season as head coach - the Huskers began to set the foundation for future success, compiling an 8-5 record with a roster consisting primarily of freshmen and sophomores before finishing fifth at the Big Eight Championships.

The Building of a Tradition
Throughout NU's history, one constant has been strong coaches. Judy Schalk replaced Balke after the 1976 season, ushering in an era that saw the Huskers win five conference titles in seven seasons. In her first season, the Huskers improved from fifth to second at the conference championships, finishing behind Iowa State.

The runner-up finish was the start of good things for the Husker program. The next season, NU captured its first conference title with a narrow victory over Colorado, as Peggy Liddick became Nebraska's first individual event champion, placing first on vault. Also an outstanding performer in track, Liddick, who later served as an assistant coach in 1989, would go on to greater fame as the coach of U.S. Olympian Shannon Miller.

In 1979, the Husker won their second straight Big Eight title behind conference titles from Renee Reisdorff on balance beam and Patty Carmichael-Gerard on floor exercise, and qualified for the AIWA national championships by virtue of their first-place finish at regionals, the first regional title in school history. At nationals, Carmichael-Gerard led the Huskers to an 11th-place finish, as she placed 10th in the all-around and fifth on floor exercise, earning All-America honors on both events. In addition, Reisdorff also was selected an All-American by finishing third on balance beam. Although the Huskers would make subsequent appearances in three of the next four seasons, - highlighted by an eighth-place finish in 1982 - but would not have another All-American for another 10 years. At the conference level, Reisdorff became the first NU gymnast to win the conference all-around title in 1980, while Kim Grabowski won the all-around and vault titles in 1983, as NU captured its fifth and final conference title under Schalk, who compiled a 46-23-2 record before she left following the 1983 season.

Walton Leads NU to National Prominence
When Schalk left, NU Athletic Director Bob Devaney selected Rick Walton, who served as head coach at the University of Georgia, to guide the Husker program.

After a third-place finish and two runner-up finishes in Walton's first three seasons, Nebraska returned to the championship platform in 1987. While Oklahoma, led by U.S Olympian Kelly Garrison-Steves, swept every event, Nebraska used its superior depth to reclaim the conference crown by the smallest margin in Big Eight history - .05 points - 184.45-184.40.

The 1987 season marked a changing of the guard in the conference, as the Huskers, led by freshmen Tami Bair, Michele Bryant, Angie Burdette and Jane Clemons, would dominate the conference and lift the Huskers to heights not seen in the program's history. During their tenure, the Huskers compiled a 66-21 record and won the Big Eight every season - the first time a conference school had ever accomplished the feat.

In 1988, six Huskers earned All-Big Eight honors as NU repeated as conference champions. The Huskers posted a 12-8 record and recorded their second straight top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships. With five all-conference selections returning the next season, NU was preparing for one of the finest seasons in school history.

The 1989 season was a magical one for the Huskers. Setting school records throughout the year, Nebraska entered the Big Eight Championships with a 13-3 record with losses to only Georgia, UCLA and Alabama, the eventual top three teams at the NCAA Championships. At the conference meet, the Huskers set a school record with a 194.10, winning the title by the largest margin in almost a decade. Bryant, who took first on balance beam, and Lisa McCrady tied for the conference all-around title, while Clemons claimed the first of her two consecutive balance beam crowns. At the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga., the Huskers, behind a trio of All-Americans, earned their best finish in school history, placing fourth with just two points separating the top four teams. Bair became the first NU gymnast to capture two All-America certificates in one season, finishing fifth on vault and fourth on balance beam. On the uneven bars, senior Crystal Savage and Bryant finished second and seventh, respectively, to give NU three All-Americans in one season. In fact, Bryant's runner-up finish was the highest a Husker gymnast had ever finished at nationals.

That record would last but one season, as Bryant, Nebraska's first three-time All-American, would become the Huskers' first - and still the only - national champion, winning the 1990 NCAA vault title with a school record of 9.85. Bryant would also place sixth on uneven bars in guiding Nebraska to a second straight top-five finish at nationals, placing fifth. On the season, NU set a school record with a 28-2 record, winning the Big Eight Championships for a fourth staight season. Clemons won the all-around and shared the uneven bars title with McCrady, who also placed first on floor. Bryant earned the the third Big Eight indidual title of her career, placing first on vault, as Nebraska outdistanced runners-up Missouri and Oklahoma by over three points.

After the four straight Big Eight titles, Walton guided the Huskers to runner-up finishes at the conference meet in each of his final three seasons. He finished with a 121-52 record in 10 seasons, setting a school record for career wins, and leading the Huskers to four NCAA appearances.

New Conference; Same Tradition
In 1994, Nebraska Director of Athletics Bill Byrne replaced Walton with Cornell University Head Coach Dan Kendig, who was an assistant at Nebraska in the early 1980s, in the hopes that he could return NU to national prominence. Byrne's move proved to be pure genius as the new coach guided the Huskers to a 11-5 record and their first Big Eight title since 1990 in his first season, earning Big 12 Coach-of-the-Year honors. The next season, the Huskers took the next step, qualifying for their first NCAA Championships since 1990 behind Joy Taylor, who became the first gymnast in five seasons to earn All-America honors.

The appearance at nationals began a three-year run in which Nebraska reached the national championships, but it was not until 1997 until the scarlet and cream made a breakthrough at the national level.

That season, the Huskers broke school records in every event in posting a 22-2 record, the second 20-win season in school history. At the Big 12 Championships, the Huskers needed a dramatic comeback, erasing over a half a point deficit in the final rotation. NU used a school record score of 49.45 on balance beam, including a then NU record of 9.925 by Shelly Bartlett, to edge the Sooners, 196.20-196.075. Bartlett, who placed first on beam and tied for first on uneven bars, set the school and Big 12 record in the all-around with a score of 39.575. Two weeks later at regionals, NU survived a season-ending injury to Amie Dillman to qualify for nationals, setting the stage for one of the most memorable moments in the program's first 25 seasons.

After missing the Super Six Finals by .025 in 1996, the Huskers qualified the next season by the slimmest margin possible. In the preliminaries Nebraska hit all 24 routines to finish in a tie with top-ranked Utah at 196.025. To break the tie, the NCAA used a tiebreaker - the score of the sixth gymnast in each event - and the Huskers won 234.725-234.35 to reach the Super Six for the first time in school history. In all, four Huskers, Bartlett, Kim DeHaan, sophomore Misty Oxford and freshman Heather Brink combined for 10 All-America certificates, the most in school history. For Bartlett, an NCAA Woman-of-the-Year finalist, and DeHaan, a first-team GTE/CoSIDA Academic All-American, the 1997 season was the culmination of an era that included a 65-15 record and four conference titles.

With the graduation of Bartlett and DeHaan, a new star emerged on the scene as the 1998 campaign unfolded. Brink continued the Huskers' dominance at the conference level, setting three school records en route to winning the Big 12 all-around with a mark of 39.575, tying Bartlett's record set the previous season. Although NU failed to qualify for nationals for the first time in four seasons, Brink became the first gymnast in school history to win a regional all-around title and reached the NCAA Championships as an individual, where she placed 14th on vault to earn All-America honors.

In 1999, Nebraska turned in an impressive 19-2 record, setting a school and Big 12 record with a 196.75 to win the conference for an unprecedented sixth straight season. The Huskers also returned to nationals after a one-year absence and were looking to qualify to the Super Six for the second time in three seasons. In a session that included eventual champion Georgia, runner-up Michigan and two other teams ranked in the top 10, Nebraska turned in a spectacular showing to qualify for the finals en route to a sixth-place finish. Kendig was named national coach of the year, while Brink, Oxford and senior Courtney Brown, the Region III Gymnast of the Year, earned All-America status.

Entering the 2000 season, Brink was already the most decorated gymnast in school history, but further etched her place in the record books on Feb. 15, when she became the first Husker female gymnast to record a 10, with a perfect mark on vault in a victory over Iowa State. This silver anniversary season has provided many memorable moments for Nebraska, including a No. 3 ranking - the highest ranking in school history, a 25-5 record, and four school record performance, including a 196.875 to win its first regional title in 17 seasons.


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